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Harris: Tomlin delivers mixed messages

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Monday, Sept. 7, 2009

This isn't about the Steelers releasing Anthony Madison, a 27-year-old cornerback who was a corner in name only but the heart and soul of the special teams.

One-dimensional NFL players — no matter how much they bring to the team in their specialized area — are living on borrowed time if they weren't drafted or recommended personally by the head coach. Especially if they're scheduled to earn $1.01 million just for playing special teams.

No, this is about coach Mike Tomlin speaking with a forked tongue about the importance of special teams.

You can earn a job just by playing on special teams, Tomlin tells his players.

He forgot to tell them: Only don't make too much money.

Madison and others such as Donovan Woods and Carey Davis believed Tomlin's hype. Last year, they helped turn what had been a poor special-teams unit into one of the best in the league. Madison led the Steelers with 25 special-teams tackles.

No matter. All three were released Friday. On Sunday, the Steelers signed Woods to the practice squad.

Madison's biggest problem was that he became too good and too expensive.

After he signed as a restricted free agent, it seemed like a great story. Not only can you make an NFL roster strictly because of special teams, you can also be paid a decent wage.

Then again, maybe not.

Madison's release wasn't about his ability to play special teams. This was a money issue. So, Madison had to go.

Madison's departure means that rookie cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett, the Steelers' third- and fifth-round picks, will be pressed into special teams action.

But if Lewis and Burnett were so good on special teams, why weren't they playing with the first unit during preseason instead of Madison?

Madison wasn't drafted and was on the roster when Tomlin arrived. Lewis and Burnett are draft picks from Tomlin's era. If they do well, he looks good.

So far, Lewis has been somewhat of a disappointment. A big corner whom defensive backs coach Ray Horton said is similar to starter Ike Taylor, Lewis was beaten for so many long pass plays during training camp — mostly by fellow rookie Mike Wallace — that he should have been nicknamed Highway 20 (his uniform number).

Based on early returns, it appears that Lewis had as much business going in the third round as did former linebacker Bruce Davis, last year's third-round pick who was also released Friday.

Davis was one of Tomlin's guys who didn't pan out. By releasing Madison because of his contract, the Steelers could be setting a bad precedent.

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